ORLANDO – Fawning players all across the NBA have turned jersey swapping into a nightly postgame occurrence this season, asking and receiving a lasting memento from retiring Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade in the form of his No. 3 jersey.
If fellow future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki is at the end of the line himself as an NBA player, Orlando Magic all-star center Nikola Vucevic won’t need to pester his boyhood idol after Friday’s game for a No. 41 jersey because of some proactive work he did in recent years.
``I already have Dirk’s jersey,’’ Vucevic said of one of his most prized, autographed possessions from his time in the NBA. ``I got it two years ago. I wanted to be safe because I didn’t know when he was going to retire. I said, `Listen, I don’t know when (Nowitzki’s career) will be over, so can I get (the jersey)?’ He gave me his jersey, so I have a couple of really nice jerseys.’’
Vucevic, Orlando’s leading scorer (20.6 points) and rebounder (12 boards) all season, could be facing off against the 7-foot Nowitzki for the final time on Friday when the Magic (30-36) face the Dallas Mavericks (27-37) at the Amway Center. Vucevic, a native of Montenegro who grew up living in Switzerland and Belgium while his father played basketball professionally in Europe for 24 years, openly admits the success that the German-born Nowitzki had in the NBA influenced him to set his sights on playing basketball at the highest level in America.
``(Nowitzki’s success) was huge for a lot of guys outside of the U.S., especially big men from Europe,’’ Vucevic said. ``When he first came here (to the NBA) people were questioning him a lot and wondering if his way of playing was going to be good. But after showing that it was, when you look at the (NBA) game now, people want bigs to play the way he played, spacing the floor and shooting.
``A lot of big men I know, he was the favorite player for a lot of players from Europe,’’ Vucevic added. ``He opened the door for so many players from Europe to come here and play. His career has been so unbelievable.’’
Friday’s game will begin a stretch for Orlando where it will play seven consecutive games against teams with losing records. In playing Dallas (27-37), two against Memphis (30-35), Washington (27-37), Cleveland (16-49), Atlanta (22-44) and New Orleans (30-37), the Magic will be trying to rip off a significant winning streak that can help them move up in the Eastern Conference standings.
Orlando, who has dropped its last two games, came into Thursday tied for ninth in the East with the Charlotte Hornets (29-35). The Heat (30-34) moved into sole possession of eighth place – a game ahead of the Magic and Hornets – with a win in Charlotte on Wednesday night.
Orlando is hopeful that it will have shooting guard Terrence Ross available for Friday’s game after he missed Tuesday’s loss in Philadelphia because of a sore left Achilles’ tendon. Ross is also slowed by flu-like symptoms, but he went through practice fully on Thursday and is hopeful to be on the court Friday night.
Ross – a player also known for high-arching shots and needing little room to get off high-degree-of-difficulty attempts over defenders – has also marveled at the brilliance of Nowitzki throughout an all-star career that has spanned two decades.
``He definitely changed the way the game is played,’’ Ross said. ``You don’t see too many (7-foot) guys like him, especially ones who have incredible shot-making (abilities) like him. He’s always going to get to his spot, no matter what, and it’s always going to be a super swish.’’
Nowitzki, 40 and the second-oldest player in the NBA, is in his 21st season with the Mavericks and he seems to be headed toward retirement with the way his game has dramatically dwindled because of age and injuries. He comes into Friday’s game averaging career lows in scoring (5.4), rebounding (2.3) and field goal percentage (32.5 percent) – a far cry from career totals (20.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 47.1 field goal percentage) that make him a lock for Hall of Fame induction in five years. In his previous three games, Nowitzki has made just four of 26 shots and only one of 15 3-pointers for a rebuilding Dallas team that has dropped three games in a row and eight of nine.
Little to none of that matters to Vucevic, whose memories of Nowitzki date back to 2005 when Nowitzki – already an NBA star with the Mavericks – won the Eurobasket MVP award while playing in Serbia. Vucevic watched those games on television and remembers thinking that if Nowitzki could succeed in the NBA, he could do the same. Vucevic ultimately attended high school in California and college at USC prior to reaching the NBA in 2011.
``He opened up the way for a lot of people to come here,’’ Vucevic said. ``And he definitely changed the game for big men. No one had ever played like him because his game was so unique. Now, you have big men shooting and (Nowitzki’s) fadeaway is unstoppable.’’
Reaching the NBA All-Star Game for the first time in his career in February was a dream come true for Vucevic. What made the dream even more special was Vucevic getting to team up Nowitzki, who along with Wade were ceremonial additions to the All-Star festivities so their great careers could be honored.
Vucevic said getting to hang out all weekend and talk casually with his idol was everything he hoped it would be prior to heading to the NBA All-Star Game.
``We spent a good amount of time together, and then during the game we checked in (the game) together,’’ said Vucevic, who had four points, five rebounds and two assists as the Magic’s first all-star representative since 2012. ``He’s a funny guy. For everything he’s achieved and the career that he’s had, he’s so humble. When everybody was out in public, he’s so humble and just likes to do his own thing. I’m was really glad I got to know him a little bit and talk to him. Everything I’ve heard from people before, he was exactly that – a great guy, funny, fun to be around and it was just really enjoyable for me.’’
Vucevic’s father, Borislav, played on the Yugoslavian National Team with European legend and former NBA standout Drazen Petrovic, who died tragically in an automobile accident in 1993 at the age of 28. While Petrovic was certainly one of the best players in European history, Vucevic feels that Nowitzki – the 2007 NBA MVP and a 2011 NBA champion – has become the greatest and most influential player to hail from Europe.
``Dirk’s career, he’s done it for (21) years now, he’s won a championship and an MVP, he’s been with one franchise his whole career, he put Dallas on the map, and everybody knows about the Mavs because of him,’’ Vucevic said. ``When you put all of that together, I think he’s the best European player to ever do it.’’
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